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Cambridge is one of the most environmentally-conscious university centres in the world, but several targets still haven’t been met. How close are we to reaching environmental sustainability?

Cambridge is the UK’s wealthiest university centre and one of the institutions that students look up to when it comes to building a greener, fossil fuel-free future. In 2010, The University of Cambridge set an ambitious ten-year environmental sustainability target: reduce carbon emissions by 34% by 2021.

Almost ten years later, many have criticized this target as arbitrary and unrealistic and several reports have found serious weaknesses in the implementation of a long-term plan.

For every student who is used to life in Cambridge by now, the university does seem to have a well put together recycling infrastructure, but how green is life on campus really?

What strategic targets did Cambridge meet?

According to the Cambridge annual environmental sustainability report, the University is on track with eight out of the thirteen targets.

Reduction of carbon emissions

Although Cambridge did not manage to stay on track with its original targets, these were later revised in 2018 to align with the University’s realistic capabilities. The presence of 19,000 students and 11,000 staff members in Cambridge calls for extensive measures in terms of carbon reduction and, although the University’s energy consumption rose by 3% in 2017-2018, scope 1 and scope 2 emissions are lower than in 2016/2017.


Following China’s reduction of plastic imports, Cambridge waste contractors had to adapt and take extensive measures to reduce landfill waste. So far, their efforts have yielded positive results. In 2017/2018, the total amount of waste sent to landfill dropped to less than a quarter of historic levels. In the previous year, this amount had actually increased, but that was because Cambridge had several active construction projects. Apart from the operation waste caused by University projects, student waste management was also improved. A bin-busting exercise revealed that over 74% of students know how to place waste in the correct bin and only 1% belonged in a separate waste recycling stream. Many companies, such as Mil-tek in the UK, have advocated over the years for the importance of waste management in education and Cambridge University is proud to report that they are generating the lowest amount of waste in five years.

A new research centre for climate repairs

In May 2019, Cambridge University announced plans to open the Centre for Climate Repair, which will investigate radical means to set the Earth’s climate back to normal levels. The geoengineering initiative is co-ordinated by the government’s former chief scientific adviser, Prof Sir David King. The Centre for Climate Repair is part of the University’s Carbon Neutral Futures Initiative, a project proposed in June 2018 in a report produced by the Divestment Working Group.

Substituting lamb and beef catering products with plant-based alternatives

Apart from energy and construction, food, especially lamb and beef, is also responsible for gas emissions and accounts for 14% of all greenhouse gases. The Cambridge University Catering Service (UCS) managed to cut carbon emissions by 33% by eliminating lamb and beef dishes from their menu and replacing them with plant-based alternatives. In a recent report issued by UCS, the catering service states that they focused on the areas with the biggest impact: reducing the consumption of ruminant meat, removing unsustainable fish from the menu, and reducing food waste. What’s interesting to note is that UCS experienced a 2% increase in gross traffic after taking these measures.

Weak points in Cambridge’s environmental strategy

If you’re an environmentally-aware student, Cambridge is a great place to be, because the University has always tried to pioneer sustainable changes in the education sector. However, there are certain problematic targets for which Cambridge has yet to find solutions.

Water consumption

Unfortunately, the annual sustainability report states that Cambridge is currently expecting to miss the 2020 target of 20% water reduction and that they will be developing a new water reduction plan. For 2017/2018, the University’s water consumption increased by a worrying 10.8% compared to 2005/2006 and it is expected to exceed record levels by 2020/2021. As part of future plans, the University is looking into ways of reducing water use by recapturing and recirculating cooling water or introducing equipment that will remove the need to use water for cooling altogether.


In 2016/2017, Cambridge had hit 83% on recycling levels, which was encouragingly close to the 95% set for 2020/2021. However, construction projects in 2017 increased by 227%, which brought these numbers down to 67%. At an operational and residential level, recycling rates have actually increased, so, with construction projects coming to an end, the University is currently working on a plan to manage construction waste and complete projects such as the North West Cambridge development with a minimum footprint.

Sustainable travel

In 2017/2018, many parts of the University estate were relocated outside the city centre. In addition, high housing prices made Cambridge staff move outside the city. As a result, sustainable travel levels dropped to 70%, down 5% from 2016/2017 and per capita carbon emissions from business flights increased by 9%. For the following year, the University is expected to develop a new plan that includes sustainable commuting options.

In 2017/2018, the University of Cambridge was rewarded with two Green Gown awards by the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) for its sustainable efforts, and it’s also on the list of finalists for 2019. However, some targets are still far from the 2050 goals, and the University needs to take more drastic measures, on par with the climate crisis.

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